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Four Tet - Live at Alexandra Palace London, 8th and 9th May 2019 Music Album Reviews

Kieran Hebden’s new live album reminds us that he is a stellar performer, not just a producer.
The British producer Kieran Hebden has one of the most distinctive signatures in electronic music. First, a gravelly drum machine; then, some jewel-toned synth pads; and, finally, a strip of harp or chimes or wordless cooing, unspooling like wrinkled ribbon.

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Maxo Kream - Brandon Banks Music Album Reviews

Sordid family history has long been the source of the Houston rapper’s most resonant storytelling. His latest project is such a major leap in craft and style, it becomes a superpower.

In a cheeky promo video released on Father’s Day, Maxo Kream’s dad explains the origin of his moniker Brandon Banks. “People could not pronounce Emekwanem,” he says, “I spent 18 hours a day explaining my name...so I changed it to Brandon Banks.” In this telling, which Emekwanem delivers with a jolly charisma, the handle is born from a comedy of errors: his name was hard on American ears, so Emekwanem made it easier.


It turns out that’s the Disney version. In reality, Brandon Banks was Emekwanem’s criminal alias. Maxo knew Banks as the scammer whose grifts enriched and endangered his family in equal measure, and whose jail bids sowed the seeds for Maxo to later embrace street life. Sordid family history has long been the source of Maxo’s most resonant storytelling, and on Brandon Banks it becomes a superpower. As Maxo details the trials of his family, he’s energized by the parallels of their struggles, his bonds deepening as he claims his place within this complicated lineage.

Maxo’s father serves as both a muse and foil, popping up throughout the record as both a character and a presence. Mirroring the album cover, a collage of their faces, Maxo builds stories around their points of overlap and distinction. His father’s scams aren’t laid out in detail, but their effects are felt in Maxo’s ties to street and gang life. “Bissonnet” breaks down the relationship between Emekwanem’s capers and Maxo’s thugging into direct cause-and-effect: “Police kicking in my door/Threw my mama on the floor/HPD took my pops/I bought a heat, hit the block.” When Maxo later gets kicked out by his mom, it feels like he’s following his dad’s lead.

His dad shapes his thoughts in “Meet Again” as well. Written in the style of Nas’ “One Love” and interpolating Ice Cube’s “Steady Mobbin,’” the song is a letter to an imprisoned friend who has become a member of Maxo’s extended family in his father’s absence. Maxo addresses him as a brother: “Let me tell you ’bout your daughter/Yesterday she tried to walk/Everyday she getting smarter/Other day she tried to talk,” Maxo raps like a proud uncle. Because his dad and brother have been imprisoned before, he knows exactly what to write to keep his homie’s spirits up. As he moves from neighborhood gossip to personal news to lawyer updates, his casualness feels practiced. It’s touching and bleak.

What prevents the record from becoming weepy and drab is Maxo’s pervasive sense of pride in himself and in his rapping. He has a dark sense of humor and a wry charm that, combined with his choppy flow and gruff voice, give his music a buoyancy. “Drizzy Draco” is a showy fusillade of gun bars grounded in a worldview. “Spice Ln.,” named after a street in his hometown of Alief, details capers with various levels of success, from a burglary in which the victim texts the robbers that they missed the money in the attic to a drug boost in which the victim later buys the drugs back. There are deaths on all sides and the gains are always meager, yet Maxo cherishes his life in full, the ups and the downs, the danger and the absurdity.

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On the record’s best songs, the action provides clues into Maxo’s character. “8 Figures” is frank about the slipperiness of fast money, but then explodes into flexes. Maxo knows the smarter route, but he can’t deny that it just feels better to spend money than to save it. “Dairy Ashford Bastard,” another ode to an Alief street, is a tribute to and castigation of his dad. Pulling no punches, Maxo claims that Emekwanem was a cheater and domestic abuser in addition to being a convict. In the context of Emekwanem’s goofy interludes throughout the album, this revelation can feel like a reversal, but Maxo yokes these failures to his dad’s strengths, detailing his father’s overall commitment to his family and to Maxo. “I’m glad you spanked my ass/I’m glad that you my dad/And I’m thankful for yo ass,” he says with sincerity.

The forgiveness Maxo offers his dad might feel overly generous or one-sided, given the omission of his mom’s perspective, but Maxo preaches loyalty as the bedrock of all relationships, so loving his dad is a matter of principle. While that sentiment sinks the Tupac-inspired “Brenda,” which feels like a rap adaptation of the Moynihan Report, the larger takeaway is that Maxo sees himself in Emekwanem (who he’s actually named after) and in his many real and adopted brothers. Like Punken before it, Brandon Banks is a major leap in craft and style as well as refinement of his self-image. As Maxo takes stock of the varied fates of his extended family he sees his own life with greater clarity.


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